I have often said to the people I pastor, “We do not come together to worship; we are worshipers who come together.” Though we use the vernacular “coming to worship” to mean “coming to church,” we must have a better understanding of where and how the real worship is taking place. We know these things, but by losing the battle of definitions we may be losing the important thing: the ability to worship biblically.
A.W. Tozer wrote, “If you cannot worship the Lord in the midst of your responsibilities on Monday, it is not very likely that you were worshiping on Sunday.”1 The German hymn goes, “Alike at work and prayer, to Jesus I repair, May Jesus Christ be praised!” The familiar point being that we cannot say and perform one thing on Sunday in church, while living another thing throughout the week, and call our Sunday attitude “worship.” It was at best performance and yet, ironically, performance is what is being advocated today with the attitude of “coming together to worship.”
Our general lack of perspective in worship is our deficiency in understanding the function of our High Priest in Hebrews 8-10 and the heavenly worship service in which He is officiating every minute of every day! Sunday-only performances (perhaps “Sunday Matinee” would be a good description) in contemporary worship services are not helping us regain reality in worship, they are, rather, taking us further into formalism and sacramentalism than ever thought possible.
I believe that in a subtle and alarming way, contemporary worship is taking us further back to Old Testament Judaism and even Romanism than it is bringing us to New Testament worship! By thinking that we are the active ones in worship, that we must become priests or “facilitators” of worship, we are rushing into the presence of God without the real High Priest, the Daysman, the Mediator, who is over the House of God, and who only can lead us in worship, interceding for us by His own blood before a holy God.
William Newell is right when he reminds his readers that the “new and living way” is more of a contrast to the old, than a fulfillment of it.
If you do not go to the Cross and get deliverance from all ‘religion,’ and find yourself in the presence of God, with all claims met, these Levitical things will have a subtle hold upon you, like the Cross on top of a Romish cathedral—while the ‘Word of the Cross’ (1 Cor. 1.18), the ‘power of God’ which sets people free, is wholly unknown to the monstrous pagan system. In the Levitical things, you are to see the contrast to what you now enjoy, not the very example of it.2
Where the old formalism became itself the priesthood and performed the worship for the people by sacrament, liturgy and icons, the new formalism (i.e. contemporary worship) is performing the same function with its worship leaders, crafted service structure, and technological shows that require nothing of the attendees in knowledge, belief or practice.
This criticism of contemporary worship should not seem extreme or unfair. It will be admitted that there is every degree of participation in this new formalism, but the gurus of the movement are making no excuses for what they are trying to accomplish. Barry Liesch3 argues that “Our entire worship culture is in transition. We are becoming, in some respects, more Hebraic” (p. 150). Also, “When leitourgia involves a large group, more vision, more planning, more drama, more mystery, more symbolism are required” (p. 173). Liesch argues for giving “worship” more priority over preaching, “An increasing number of writers, theologians, and researchers of worship are taking the view that worship should receive priority over teaching, evangelism and fellowship” (p. 157). He even uses Kierkegaard (the father of Neo-Orthodoxy) as an example to promote worship as performance with God as the audience and “prompters” (read: “worship leaders”) as coaches, rather than God as the coach (p. 123).
Robert Webber4 criticizes the break from Catholicism as a step backward in worship, transubstantiation and the Eucharist being far better symbols than what traditional churches have used (p. 136). He advocates using the Book of Common Prayer (p. 138) and describes a service at Tyndale Theological Seminary in which the students celebrated the Eucharist by carrying the bread and wine down the isle above their heads to singing which may “explode in praise and thanksgiving and may experience the healing touch of the Holy Spirit” (p. 134-5).
My point in this is that rather than being worshipers all the time, the emphasis now is that we can come together and be led by worship leaders into God’s presence with all the emotion and symbolism that the liturgical churches ever had! Having accomplished this in an hour or two, the attendee is now sufficiently spiritual to make it through the week until the next worship experience. The contemporary approach to “worship” is facilitating this error, not combating it. Rather than our worship being based on the church’s understanding and doctrine it is based on the unbeliever’s idea of what he wants church to be. This could never coincide with Hebrews 8-10.
We have a High Priest over the House of God! This is what Hebrews 10:21 says. We only can participate in what the New Testament calls “worship” if we have come unto God by Him (7:25); if our evil conscience has been purged by His own blood (9:14); and we have been perfected forever through His once-for-all offering for sin (10:10). It is He who has done and is doing any action that propitiates God (9:24-28), none of our actions nor the sacrifices of animals being acceptable in His sight (10:2-4).
Christian worship is, therefore, our participation through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father, in his vicarious life of worship and intercession. It is our response to our Father for all that he has done for us in Christ. It is our self-offering in body, mind and spirit, in response to the one true offering made for us in Christ, our response of gratitude to God’s grace, our sharing by grace in the heavenly intercession of Christ.6
Newell wrote it this way,
Yes, we need a Priest, and we have a Priest, thank God, a Great Priest over the house of God (vs. 21). Let us mark, however, that we do not serve Him as Priest: He serves us. We are not directed to come to Him as Priest, but to God’s throne of grace, relying on Christ’s shed blood, and having Him as Great Priest over the house of God.7
Hebrews 10:21, where the presence of our High Priest is declared, is followed by the “Let us” patch. Seeing that this arrangement is true for us, we are invited to do three things. I submit that these are samples8 of the believer’s true “worship,” that worship not being a “performance” whereby we “come into the presence of God,” but a cognitive recognition that we are always in the presence of God! Even when we were dead in sins, [He] hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:5-6).
We are worshipers who are sprinkled and washed.
Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water (22). Homer Kent describes this twofold process which makes us continual worshipers before His presence,
Just as the Old Testament priest entered the divine presence by the sprinkling of blood and by virtue of bathing his flesh with water, so the Christian believer may confidently exercise his approach to God on the basis of a heart purified judicially by the blood of Christ and with a life that is cleansed from defilement by the Word of God (Eph. 5:25, 26).9
We are worshipers who are waiting and confident.
And let us hold fast the profession of our [hope] without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised) (23). Our continual worship should always be in light of His soon return. Paul commended the patience of hope of the Thessalonians and that they were ready to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come (1 Thes. 1:3, 10). F. F. Bruce wrote, “Each successive Christian generation is called upon to live as the generation of the end-time, if it is to live as a Christian generation.”10 Our worship is also involved in Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and Savior Jesus Christ (Tit. 2:13).
We are worshipers who are considering and assembling.
And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much more, as ye see the day approaching (24-25). A vital part of our continual worship is to think about how we can stimulate our fellow believers to love and good works. We cannot do this by forsaking them but by assembling with them as often as the church meets. In this way we are truly worshipers who come together and the activity we do there is merely a continuation of our worship!
And so . . .
Let us do one more thing. Should we not put aside the “obvious lie” that is such a part of the superficial world around us?—the gestures, the mechanical voices, the artificial scenery, the rolling of the eyes and the hypocritical motions. Why should we be any different singing, praying, reading and listening than we are at any other time? Let’s be real! And let’s not fall back into the ritualism that has stolen our faith.Notes: 1.A.W. Tozer, Whatever Happened To Worship (Camp Hill: Christian Publication, 1985) 122. 2. William Newell, Hebrews (Chicago: Moody Press, 1947) 280. 3.Barry Liesch, The New Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001). 4 Robert Webber, Planning Blended Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998). 5. Slate Magazine (www.slate.com, 2/28/06). 6. James B. Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1996) 15. 7. Newell, 348. 8. All of Christian activity on earth is worship before God. Christ and the Holy Spirit are representing it before God for us. Hebrews 13:13-16 shows that with such sacrifices God is well pleased. 9. Honer Kent, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker Book, 1979) 200. 10. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) 256.